Idea of using old jail as coal museum gives group hope

March 17, 2003|by RICHARD BELISLE

The nearest West Virginia coal mine is hours away from Charles Town, but a citizens group working to save the city's old jail from demolition thinks it's a perfect site for a museum dedicated to the Mountain State's coal mining history.

The idea surfaced Saturday at a press conference and rally sponsored by Jefferson County Preservation Alliance to Save Our Heritage. About 60 people attended the event.

The group has been trying to save the jail since the County Commissioners voted to tear it down two years ago to make room for a new county judicial center behind the County Courthouse on George Street.


The issue has been in court since. Circuit Court Judge Thomas Steptoe is expected to decide March 31 if an injunction against the commissioners to stop the demolition should be ended.

The jail closed when Eastern Regional Jail was built in Berkeley County in the 1980s.

A half-dozen members of the United Mine Workers of America attended Saturday's conference in the Old Opera House across George Street from the jail.

Charles Town's connection with coal mining stems from a series of trials held at the courthouse on a change of venue in 1922.

On trial, in what was then called the "treason trial," were hundreds of coal miners from the state's southern coal fields who were involved in the bloody Battle of Blair Mountain.

The fight was over the UMW's effort to organize the mines. U.S. Army troops were brought in to restore order.

West Virginia has lost its labor heritage, said Gary Fritz, spokesman for the miners present Saturday. Plans to establish a miners' museum in the old jail is of special interest to the UMWA, he said.

Carol Gallan, head of the alliance, said the jail and the historic County Courthouse, which she said is becoming obsolete, could be converted to other uses, possibly a tourist destination.

The jail, built in 1918, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

In January, a team of four area architects - David Kemnitzer of Shepherdstown, Matthew Grove of Martinsburg, Walton Stowell of Harpers Ferry and George Siekkinen of the National Trust for Historic Preservation - inspected the jail.

Other than some minor water damage from a leaky roof, the building is sound and in good restorable condition, the architects said.

Grove said it would cost up to $456,000 to redesign and renovate the 5,700-square-foot jail to other uses compared with up to $1.2 million to raze it and build a new structure.

"It's not always about money," Gallan said. "We have to look beyond to what might be."

A rally in front of the jail was held after the conference. Preservationists held up placards supporting their cause. Music was provided by Allegheny Uprising, an acoustic trio.

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